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President Bill Clinton -- Jan. 28, 1997

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Clinton Takes Sharp Questions On Fund-Raising

By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics

Clinton

WASHINGTON (Jan. 28) -- President Bill Clinton fended off sharp-edged questions about Democratic fund-raising today during a televised news conference at the White House, conceding "mistakes were made." But he optimistically predicted cooperation with Republicans on budget issues.

In his first post-inaugural press conference, Clinton responded to questions ranging from welfare reform to the balanced budget to the Mideast peace process. But he was hit by no fewer than eight questions about White House scandals, especially Democratic fund-raising.

"Every one of us who has participated in this system, even if we did it because we thought we had to do it to survive or to just keep up, has to take some responsibility for its excesses -- and I take mine," Clinton conceded. "It's up to me to do what I can to clean up the system." (288K AIFF or WAV sound)

Clinton

Clinton acknowledged it was a mistake for the comptroller of the currency to attend one of the Democratic National Committee-arranged coffees at the White House for Democratic supporters.

"Regulators should not come to meetings that are sponsored, that have any kind of political sponsorship," Clinton said. But he said "categorically" that no administration policies had been affected by fund-raising considerations.

Clinton wouldn't rule out similar coffees in the future, saying they were an effective way for him to hear first-hand how the government's operations are affecting people.

Moreover, while acknowledging that some funds had been raised improperly, Clinton maintained the majority of funds raised by both parties is done so legally. (160K AIFF or WAV sound) "I would be astonished if that were not so," he said. Still, he portrayed the current campaign finance system as outdated. (224K AIFF or WAV sound)

Clinton

"This system has not been fixed in over 20 years," he noted. "During that 20 years, there has been an explosion in ways of communicating with people and an exponential increase in the cost of communicating."

Clinton reiterated his support for campaign finance legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). That bill, opposed by most Republicans, imposes voluntary spending limits on federal candidates, which the president said is key. And he touted the DNC's willingness to unilaterally ban so-called soft money donations.

Asked if he thought an independent prosecutor should be appointed to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing, Clinton said, "That's a decision for the attorney general to make." Regarding Sen. Fred Thompson's (R-Tenn.) imminent congressional investigation, he said, "I just want him to be fair." (224K AIFF or WAV sound)

Challenged to defend recent inaccurate statements provided by White House officials, Clinton said, "When you get asked hundreds of questions, it's not possible to remember the answer to every one. I think some of these people make honest mistakes." And he noted the press doesn't always get its facts straight either.

Clinton

The president began the 55-minute session touting his budget proposals, which he said represent an "unprecedented commitment" to higher education. He repeated his oft-stated plans for a $1,500 tax credit, tax-free withdrawals from individual retirement accounts, expanded Pell grants, and expanded access to student loans.

He highlighted prospects for cooperation with GOP leaders, saying, "The most encouraging thing has been, to me, the way that my budget proposals have been received. Even in criticism, they have not been rejected outright."

In reference to the flap over House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethical woes, the president denied a reporter's suggestion the post-election goodwill with Republicans had been "poisoned" by partisanship.

Clinton spoke harshly, though, of a top Republican priority -- the balanced budget amendment -- which will likely be voted on soon. Calling it "bad economic policy," Clinton said such a law would put a "straitjacket" on government, and could cause Social Security checks to be impounded and other "terribly counterproductive" outcomes. (128K AIFF or WAV sound)

Despite the barrage of sometimes pointed questions over fund-raising, Clinton maintained a mostly even temper throughout the hour-long session. He did react testily, however, to the suggestion he might have had prior knowledge of the hiring of his longtime associate Webster Hubbell by the Lippo Group, an Asian conglomerate at the center of the Democratic fund-raising controversy.

What services Hubbell was hired to perform, at a time he was mired in Whitewater legal problems, is not yet clear. Today, the president reiterated an earlier account that he had learned of Hubbell's hiring through news reports. And he took issue with the line of questioning.

"I think when somebody makes a charge like that there ought to be some burden on them to come forward with some evidence to substantiate their charge instead of saying we'll make a charge, see if you can disprove it," Clinton said. "That's not the way things work and that's a pretty irresponsible charge to make without knowing -- having some evidence of it." (192K AIFF or WAV sound)


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